“But I did not pass it. A sound struck my ear. It was that of a smothered sob, and it came from the room where I had first seen Miss Dudleigh. Instantly a vision of that sweet form bowed in misery struck upon my still palpitating heart; and moved at a grief I knew to be well nigh as bitter as my own, I stopped before the half-closed door, and gently pushed it open.
“Miss Dudleigh at once advanced to meet me. Tears were on her cheeks, but she walked very firmly, and took my hand with an inquiry in her soft eyes that almost drove me distracted.
“‘What shall I do?’ I cried to myself. ‘Tell this woman to beware, or leave her to fight her battles alone?’ No answer came from my inmost soul. I was appalled by her weakness and my own selfishness, and bowed my head and said nothing.
“‘A strange ending to the hopes of this day,’ were the words that thereupon fell from her lips. ‘Is — is — Marah ill, or did one of her strange moods overtake her?’
“‘I do not understand Miss Leighton,’ I replied. ‘The time I have spent in the study of her character has been wasted. I shall never undertake to open the book again.’
“‘Then,’ she faltered, and an absolute terror grew in her eyes, ‘you are going to leave her. She is going to be free, and —’ The white cheeks grew scarlet. She evidently feared that she had shown me her heart.
“Affected, but irresolute still, I took her hand and carried it to my lips.
“‘Let me thank you,’ said I, ‘for glimpses into a nature so noble and womanly that I am saved in this hour from cursing all womankind.’
“Ah, how she sighed.
“‘You are good,’ she murmured. ‘You have deserved a better fate. But it is the lot of goodness and truth ever to meet with misappreciation and disdain. Here, here, only,’ and she struck her breast with her clenched right hand, ‘lie the rewards for honesty, long-suffering, and tenderness. In the world without there is nothing.’
“Tears, which I could not restrain, welled up to my eyes. I could never have wept for my own suffering, but for hers it seemed both natural and real. Ah, why had she thrown the treasures of her heart away upon a fool? Why had she given the trust of her heart to a villain? I opened my lips to speak; she saw his name faltering on my tongue, and stopped me.
“‘Don’t!’ she breathed. ‘I know what you would say and I cannot bear it. I was motherless, fatherless, almost friendless, and I relied upon the wisdom of an aunt, whose judgment was, perhaps, not all that it should have been. But it is too late now for regrets. I have launched my boat, and it must sail on; only — you are an honest man and will respect my confidence — was it Mr. Urquhart I saw on the outskirts of the crowd to-day?’
“I bowed. I knew she had not asked because she had any doubts as to the fact of his being there, but because she wanted to see if I had recognized him and owed any of my misery to that fact.
“‘It was he,’ said I, and said no more.
“The mask fell from her countenance. She clasped her hands together till they showed white as marble.
“‘Oh! we are four miserable ones!’ she cried. ‘He —’
“It was my turn to stop her.
“‘I would rather you did not say it,’ I exclaimed. ‘I can bear much, but not to hear another person utter words that will force me to think of the dagger I carry always in my breast. Besides, we may be mistaken.’ I did not believe it, but I forced myself to say it. ‘She declares he is nothing to her, and if that is so, you might wish to have kept silent.’
“‘She says! Ah! can you believe her? do you?’
“‘I must — or go mad.’
“‘Then I will believe her, too. I am so slightly tied to this world that has deceived me, that I will trust on a little while longer, even if my trust lands me in my grave. I had rather die than discover deceit where I had looked for honesty and gratitude.’
“I was a coward, perhaps, but I did not try to dissuade her. Though she was fatherless and motherless, and loverless and friendless, I let her grasp at this wisp of hope and cling to it, though I knew it would never hold, and that her only chance for happiness was passing from her.
“‘If he were not poor,’ she now breathed rather than whispered, ‘I would find it easier to rend myself free. But he has nothing but what lies in my future, and if I should make a mistake and do injustice to a man that is merely suffering under a temporary intoxication, I should rob him of his only hope, without adding one chance to my own.’
“I bowed, and made a movement toward the door. I could not stand much more of this strain.
“‘You are going?’ she cried. ‘Well, I cannot keep you. But that dagger! You will promise me to throw it away? You do not need it in defense, and you do not want to kill me before my time.’
“No, no; I did not want to kill her. Grief was doing that fast enough; so I thought at that time. Shuddering, but resolute, I drew the tiny steel from my breast and laid it in her hand.
“‘It is all I can give you to show you my appreciation of your goodness.’ And not trusting myself to linger longer lest I should take it again from her hand, I went out and walked hastily from the house.
“If you asked me what road I took, or through what streets I passed, or whose eye I encountered in my next hour’s walking through the town, I could not tell you. If jeers followed me, I heard them not; if I was the recipient of sympathizing looks and wondering conjectures, they were all lost upon eyes that were blind and ears that were deaf. I did not even feel; and did not realize till night that I had been wandering for hours without my cloak, which I had left in the carriage and forgotten to take again when I went out. The first knowledge I had of my surroundings was when I found an obstruction in my path, and looking up, saw myself in front of my own door, and not two feet from me, Edwin Urquhart.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50